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Cross-border law firm advising startups and game studios on California and B.C. corporate and technology law.

Video Game Profit Sharing Structures

Our video game studio clients often come to us with plans to split game profits among the team members but require advice on the form this split should take.  Three main approaches exist for structuring your video game profit share:

1.  Profit Sharing Agreement

The most common approach is the Profit Sharing Agreement.  This agreement is between the company and each person participating in the profit share and sets out the profit sharing terms and contains key terms such as:

  • How profit is calculated.  For example, revenue received by the company from sales of the game minus publisher royalties, platform fees, certain operating costs etc.
  • What constitutes the “game”.  Does the game include DLC, HD/upscaled/remastered versions, sequels etc.?
  • Adjustment of each person’s percentage if future participants added. 
  • What is the profit sharing duration?
  • Is there a cap on payouts?
  • Termination upon acquisition of the company or the game, perhaps with a lump payout.
  • What happens if the company receives investment?

The benefit to this approach is that the participants are not shareholders in the company and, as a result, do not have a say in how the company is operated or a right to receive payouts from future games developed by the company.  However, the parties need to ensure that the agreement is thorough in its scope as any ambiguity or overlooked scenario could create major headaches in the future.

2.   Create a Separate Company for each Game

Under this approach, a separate company is created for each game you develop, with the commonality being that the main company you incorporated (the studio) is a majority shareholder (51% and up) in each of these separate companies.  For example: Studio Company owns 66 2/3% of Game 1 Company.  The separate company would receive profits from the game and distribute them to the shareholders based simply upon their shareholding (although more complex special rights and restrictions could also be put in place).  Intellectual property for each game may rest with the separate company or the main company.  Profits from the game would be distributed as a dividend to the shareholders.

This approach works well if each person is expecting an interest in the company developing the game with the benefit that these persons cannot participate in future games developed by the main company (which may be unrelated to the current game).  However, when pursuing this approach, it is important to obtain tax advice to ensure that distribution of the profits between the companies is structured efficiently.

3.  Issue Shares in your Company to Profit Share Participants

Under this approach, a special class of non-voting share (the profit share class)  is issued to the profit share participants and contains a dividend right to receive a portion of game profits, which would contain similar terms as described in approach 1 above.  This approach is similar to approach 2 above except that no separate company is created.  However, additional terms are also required, such as:

  • Share retractability:  this allows the company to repurchase the profit sharing shares in the future.
  • Voting trust:  this takes control of some or all of the voting rights of the non-voting shareholders  (see non-voting shareholder’s limited voting rights).

The problem with this approach stems from the fact that the profit share participants may only be involved in one game but the studio may continue on to make other games, which the profit share participant should not receive a financial benefit from.  Further, by being a shareholder (without detailed share rights and restrictions), the shareholder may be able to participate in profits from future, unrelated titles, benefit from sale of the company and/or exert their rights as a shareholder to participate in the company’s direction.  To alleviate these problems, complex terms and agreements are likely needed (see retractability and the voting trust) to ensure that the profit share shareholders only benefit from the game they worked on and have a limited right, if any, to participate in the company’s direction.

As a first step, it’s critical to recognize that your profit sharing agreement needs to be documented in writing.  Second, you must reflect on the relationship you desire with the profit sharing participants (duration, scope of their involvement etc.) and analyze that relationship relative to the features of each of the above approaches.

Priced Rounds

As part of our day-to-day practice, we advise clients on different structures available for early-stage financing rounds.  As part of these discussions, convertible notes and SAFEs are inevitably raised by the founder yet the concept of a priced round is rarely raised and sometimes not even understood by the founder.  Priced rounds were the common approach to financing startups at all stages for over 25 years and are slowly making a comeback, which should be to the benefit of founders.

Understanding the Priced Round.  Priced rounds are simple:  the company and investors agree to a company valuation and the investors purchase shares in the company at this valuation.  Conversely, convertible notes and SAFEs are premised on the parties NOT agreeing to a company valuation, which is answered at a later date when a priced round occurs (typically the series A round) and the convertible notes or SAFEs convert.

When are Rounds Priced?  These days, priced rounds first arise during the Series A financing, where preferred shares are sold to investors.  At this stage convertible notes and SAFEs usually convert.  However, as advocated for in this post, any round can be priced including angel and seed rounds.

What are the Benefits to a Priced Round?  The company knows exactly what % of the company is being sold in the round and the founders know exactly how much they are diluted.  In a convertible note or SAFE financing there is some uncertainty as to how much of the company is actually being sold as these instruments typically convert on a fully diluted basis including the increase in option pool size required by the Series A investors yet the increase in the option pool is unknown until the Series A round.  Additionally, priced rounds eliminate the confusion surrounding how numerous convertible notes and SAFEs, with different caps and conversion terms, convert (these calculations are difficult to understand, even for sophisticated parties).

We encourage our clients to explore priced common share rounds when considering the structure for their next early-stage investment round.   Admittedly, some investors prefer convertible notes and SAFEs and others will reject a priced round valuation but accept the same valuation (or higher) as the cap on a convertible note or SAFE.  While priced rounds may not work in all situations there is no harm in floating this as a possible investment structure.  Indeed, sophisticated VCs, such as Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, agree that pricing rounds may be in the best interest of startups and their founders and should be explored rather than avoided.

Real World Items in Games

When creating realistic video games, developers often desire to render real-world items digitally but neglect considering rights held in these items.  A failure to investigate rights held in real-world items is not limited to smaller studios as major developers (ex. Activision) have been sued for using real-world items in their games, such as AM General’s Hummer and certain firearms.   To assist in avoiding these issues, consider the following steps when inserting real-world items into your game:

  1.  Check to see if the item you are adding to the game is based on a real-world item.  For example, modes of transportation, firearms and luxury goods in games could all be based off a real-world item.
  2. When purchasing assets from marketplaces be sure to ensure that the asset creator has not  infringed the rights of third parties.  This has been an issue on the UE marketplace leading to an audit of most firearm asset packages.
  3. If your item is based on a real-world item, determine the rights held in that item.  For example, the design could be covered by a design patent while the name or logo could be trademarked.
  4. If there are rights held in the item be sure to secure a license from the rights holder before proceeding, otherwise you risk litigation and will be running afoul of most representations and warranties contained in publishing and platform agreements you sign.

In many cases, it’s cheaper to design your own items rather than seeking a license for real-world items, which may not be granted.  Take the GTA series and its use of cars of its own design – it’s doubtful that an automaker would license their rights to a game in which the same car is used to commit (digital) criminal offences, including murder.

If you are in doubt whether the particular item or its name is protected, be sure to contact your legal counsel before spending time integrating it into your game.

NDA Pitfalls

Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are a critical part of a technology company’s legal arsenal but are often relegated to a standard template without much thought.  Too often, I’ve seen NDAs sent by sophisticated companies that contain a number of pitfalls that often negate some of the protections that NDAs are relied upon for.  While there are numerous pitfalls to be watched for when drafting and reviewing NDAs, I wanted to highlight a few pitfalls that I frequently encounter that are often missed by both disclosing and receiving parties:

1.  Duration

While it may seem obvious it bears repeating: the duration of a NDA matters.  Often the NDAs I receive specify a relatively brief duration: usually between 2 and 5 years.  Problematically, after the time-period expires the protections provided by the NDA lapse and the previously confidential information can be disclosed at will.  While you may not believe that confidential information would be valuable 5 years into the future, this could be a costly assumption – image if the Coca-Cola recipe was treated the same?

NDAs should specify a perpetual duration unless you have a specific reason for limiting the duration.  Regardless, if the NDA duration has a limit you should be very careful to disclose only information that you’re comfortable becoming public information in the future.

2.  Who Can be Disclosed to

I often encounter NDAs that classify the NDA itself as confidential information that can only be disclosed with permission from the other party.  While seemingly innocuous, this treatment of the NDA can become a massive headache when it comes time to sell your company or its technology.  For example, you could be prohibited from disclosing the mere existence of the NDA to the purchaser or its legal counsel.

NDAs should permit disclosure of the NDA itself to your professional service providers, third parties proposing to engage in transactions with your company and their professional service providers.

3.  Scope of Protection

Do not neglect the scope of the NDA’s protection.  Obviously the NDA should protect information physically disclosed or spoken to the other party but there may be certain things disclosed to the other party that don’t fall within the typical scope of “information”.  For example, you may want the NDA to protect things that are visually perceived by the other party when on-site or sounds heard by the other party (this could matter if the sound of a machine could be used to determine a key design feature).

Always consider what you are disclosing under the NDA and be sure that the scope of the NDA’s protection matches the scope of disclosure as well as inadvertent, passive, disclosures that may take place.

Ultimately, the pitfalls with a NDA, as with any legal document, originate from the treatment of the NDA as a standard templated agreement.  The NDA is a powerful document that should be carefully crafted to reflect your particular business needs and to avoid the above pitfalls.